Home of the brave?

Phil Ford

I went to the last Indiana University women’s basketball  game this season on Sunday (against Penn State, who lost). It was cool. But the thing that stuck in my mind was the singing of the national anthem. I didn’t grow up in the U.S.; it was the words to “O Canada” that my teachers mimeo’d in smudgy, purple, delicious-smelling type. (The mimeo smell . . . . oooooohhh . . .)  I’ve been in the United States for 20 years now, and I’ve stood for the Star-Spangled Banner I don’t know how many times. And on Sunday I was once again standing for the national anthem, and the jumbotron thingy in the center of the court is reading out the words, and we got to the end

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

And I realized, there’s a question mark. Am I the last person to notice this? My relationship to The Star-Spangled Banner is purely oral — I’ve heard it and repeated it. But I’ve never read it, and then, after 20 years, I get a surprise: there’s a question mark at the end. This makes grammatical sense, if you stop to think about it, but you never do think about it. “Land of the free and the home of the brave” seems so affirmative, self-congratulatory even, and coming at the end of the tune’s triumphal ascent (the moment where jets fly overhead and fireworks go off and the crowd roars, etc.) we simply assume that hell yeah, you goddam well better believe that flag yet waves.

A moment to pause and reflect: if there’s one thing Americans have over Canadians, it’s the national anthem. The thing I always liked about the “Star-Spangled Banner” was its range, which spans a twelfth. Most people can only comfortably sing within an octave, so when you get to the part about the rocket’s red glare, you force your voice up into that dangerous range where it can crack or squeak or give out altogether. In singing your national anthem you take a risk, and I like that about it. I like a national anthem that makes you perform your own patriotism by demanding a moment of extremity and existential choice: will I go for it and risk vocal disaster, or will I mouth the words and submit meekly to the authority of the professional singer standing at center court? A good American knows the answer. In “The Star-Spangled Banner,” loud nasty out-of-tune
bawling can count as a good performance, because it represents risk freely chosen and struggle willingly undertaken. And this is awesome. As everyone knows, America’s national anthem was originally a drinking song (which might explain its excessive range). This is somehow very American. Canada’s national anthem is a paraphrase of the “March of the Priests” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which is somehow very Canadian. So are its modest vocal demands, circular repetitions, and vague promises to “stand on guard.”

On the other hand, the Canadian flag is definitely better than the American. If you haven’t already seen this chart evaluating the world’s flags, do check it out. Methodology is here. Some of the comments are hilarious. Zimbabwe: “features a hawk sitting on a toilet.” Mozambique: “Automatic weapons on a flag are especially bad. Appears to have been
designed by a committee all of whom had stupid ideas for pictures of extra things to put on the flag.” Northern Mariana Islands: “Appears to have been constructed from clip art.” Libya: “Did you even try?” While the United States flag doesn’t commit any serious aesthetic outrages, it lacks the iconic simplicity of the Canadian maple leaf. (Plus, if you look at the maple leaf a certain way, it looks like two crabby guys having an argument — an illustration, perhaps, of the endless quarrels between English and French Canada, though it would be hoping too much to suppose that this is intentional.)

I seem to have wandered somewhat from my main point. Ah, yes, the question mark. What it means is this: we never know if the star-spangled banner yet waves. It’s always an open question. America is not a permanent revolution, it’s a permanent experiment, but then, there’s no such thing as a permanent experiment. Experiments are, well, experimental: prone to messy, catastrophic failure. It’s in their nature to fail. How did we even get this far on an experiment? It’s a mystery. By rights, the American revolution should have ended with some demagogue seizing dictatorial power and using the apparatus of the state to kill his enemies and take their stuff. It’s what always happens after revolutions. And yet this didn’t happen here. At various points in this nation’s history there have been opportunities for Americans collectively to give in to the natural human desire to renounce the hell of infinite space that is freedom, to seek the comforting arms of a strongman who will choose their way for them and relieve them of the frightening burden of being free. And yet here we are.

I used to think that this experiment was destined for success. You can look back over all the years when America almost gave in, almost became not-America, but didn’t, and you might get cocky. But seven years of Bushism — not conservatism, but a kind of radicalism, a twisted mockery of conservatism fusing tribal hatreds with leader-worship —  taught me that America is fragile. Two hundred-thirty-two years of American successes do not predict year number two hundred thirty three. It could all just go away tomorrow, and all it would take would be someone who can finally take our fear — that fear that our voice might give out when we come to the bit about the rockets and bombs, the perennial fear — and use it to convince us, once and for all, to say, that’s OK, someone else can do the singing, I’m done.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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11 Responses to Home of the brave?

  1. David Cavlovic says:

    Hey! Don’t knock our anthem, eh? It’s modelled on purpose by Calixa Lavalle after the March of the Priests from the Second Act of Die Zauberflöte. And opera rocks, mmm-kay? Stamped it, aced it, no rub-outs. Now, I’m going for my Timmies.

  2. Ben says:

    Another entry in the apparently growing field of flag humor is “The World’s 16 Least Inspiring Flags” over at http://www.cracked.com/article_15894_worlds-16-least-inspiring-flags.html
    I think I prefer the both the US and Canadian anthems to the British one, but that probably has something to do with its overexposure. It’s sort of the “Canon” of national anthems.

  3. Travis Stimeling says:

    I, too, have often been frustrated by this question mark. But Francis Scott Key’s lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner” don’t end there. The song is actually comprised of four verses, the second of which responds affirmatively to the rhetorical question of the first verse:
    On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,
    Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
    What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
    As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
    Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
    In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
    ‘Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

  4. Joshua Bradshaw says:

    I remember reading the other 3 verses of the Star Spangled Banner in elementary school. Back then I thought those lines were easily more patriotic, simple, and comforting. Now I think the fact that the anthem ends with a question mark adds character, and in light of recent times, seems a lot more fitting.
    That said, most people as kids, my dad and myself included, got stuck on trying to figure out why the song asked a guy name Jose if he can see.

  5. While it’s true that the first verse ends with a question mark, and that we rarely sing the subsequent verses that answer the question, I’m not sure that as much can be read into the question mark as we might like. A national anthem by its nature signifies more than just what the text means, and to understand it _as_ a national anthem we need to consider the full context, and the way in which it’s actually used. Most performances ignore the questions mark and belt the last line triumphantly and confidently, turning the question rhetorical — it’s the “who’s your daddy?” of national anthems. Even the standard orchestra/band arrangements generally get quiet and questioning during “the rockets red glare” but go back to triumph for the final lines.
    The redeeming quality that persists, however, is that the song is about the flag flying over the homeland–our national identity as expressed by our anthem is about preserving our own nation as the land of the free, so the triumphalism is about defending against conquerors rather than about going out and doing our own conquering. La Marsaillais has something of that quality as well, but in a bloodthirsty rabble-rousing way. The Star Spangled Banner is from the perspective not of a person doing the fighting, but of a person witnessing it–the glory is thus externalized and made national rather than personal, and the emphasis is not on “we’re going to kill the bad guys” but “we as a nation are going to protect the good guys.” At the same time, it’s more concrete than O Canada, which is more of a vague statement of intentions. The Star Spangled Banner memorializes an actual event during the actual defense of the nation from a hostile outside force, which I think makes it more real in a way.

  6. Travis Stimeling says:

    Good points, Galen. And when we consider the musical rhetoric of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the question mark is always silenced by the PAC that rounds out each verse. It is virtually impossible for a singer to communicate the question mark because the harmony requires a “period.”

  7. rootlesscosmo says:

    Another anthem discussion going on at the excellent history blog Edge of the American West:
    http://edgeofthewest.wordpress.com/2008/03/03/last-refuge/

  8. Travis, that’s an interesting point about the PAC at the end of each verse. Maybe it’s because of the question mark, maybe not, but I prefer arrangements of the SSB that utilize a V/IV in 3rd inversion (4/2) on the word “free” in the last phrase; it gives the piece a little more harmonic interest, and maybe subverts that PAC just a tiny little bit, allowing the question mark to influence our thoughts (however subtly).
    Of course, that V/IV may ironize the word “free” slightly (shouldn’t that word have a nice root position chord showing how strong and true it is?). I’d like to be snarky and say I like that figuration because it’s a statement on what passes for “free” in the years of the Bush Junta, but I’ve always preferred that version, regardless of who is in the White House.
    WF

  9. Sator Arepo says:

    I thought musicologists hated Roman Numerals!
    Seriously though, good post and interesting discussion. However, I’m mostly chiming in to say I loved the flag thing.

  10. MJ says:

    You only have to be a modern-day Catholic to know that the twelve-note range is not confined to the Star-Spangled Banner. Songs like “I am the Bread of Life” and “On Eagles’ Wings” force the average pew-sitter into all kinds of vocal stretches. Such is the state of “worship music” today. But that’s another topic …
    That said, thank you for this post. If you’re not already an American citizen, you should be on the strength of this little essay alone!
    MJ

  11. Michael says:

    Thanks, Phil. I never saw the crabby guys before!
    – MjE

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